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HIRED, FIRED, REHIRED: BENJI GIL'S MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR
Benji Gil had a most interesting month in November, even by Mexican baseball standards. First, the former Rangers and Angels infielder was picked to manage Mexico in next year's World Baseball Classic. Then he was fired as manager of the Mexican Pacific League's Culiacan Tomateros, only to be reinstated and back in the dugout within hours of being sacked. Even for someone like Gil, as voluble as he is volatile, that's a head-spinning series of events. Ready? Here we go...
After leading Mexico to a sixth-place finish at last year's Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Gil will manage the Verdes Grande at the World Baseball Classic 2023. The 50-year-old Gil served as a coach with the Los Angeles Angels last summer under managers Joe Maddon and Phil Nevin after managing Guadalajara's expansion team in the Mexican League in 2021, earning Manager of the Year honors that season. As a player, Gil participated in the World Baseball Classic 2006. He played eight MLB seasons as a utility infielder and was on the 2002 World Series-winning Los Angeles Angels roster.
"Benji Gil is a winner," commented National Team general manager Rodrigo Lopez, a starting pitcher and Gil teammate for Mexico in the 2006 World Baseball Classic. "As a player, he is on the list of World Series winners; as a manager, he's shown leadership, attitude and passion. He is fluent in English and Spanish and knows the Mexican Leagues as well as the Big Leagues."
Ranked fourth in the world, Mexico will compete in Group C of the WBC and face host USA (ranked fifth), Colombia (#11), Canada (#12) and Great Britain (#23) in Phoenix from March 11 through 15 next year. So far, so good but as November drew to a close, things got weird.
First, he was fired last Monday as helmsman in Culiacan, where he had managed the Tomateros to four pennants (but no Caribbean Series titles) in six winters. However, the team had a cumulative 16-25 record this current season, including a last-place finish in the first half with 14 wins over 35 contests. Bench coach Noe Munoz was also let go as the team's board of directors issued the usual thanks for professionalism to both as the door was hitting them on the way out. While MLB fans may be shocked over the dismissal of a manager who had been one win away from a fifth pennant since 2014 last season, as Culiacan lost the LMP championship series to Jalisco in seven contests last January, it's a common occurance south of the border. What happened next, though, is a bit rarer.
In officially announcing the ouster of both Gil and Munoz last Tuesday at noon, a press release from the team stated that Tomateros bullpen coach and former pitching star Francisco Campos (who also manages Campeche in the Mexican League) would be Gil's replacement in the dugout beginning with that night's home game against Guasave. This brought an immediate response from the Culiacan players, who let the board know in no uncertain terms during an impromptu meeting that afternoon that they supported their deposed skipper. After the meeting ended, it was announced by Campos himself (alongside sports manager Mario Valdez) that both Gil and Munoz would be back that night.
"Upon arriving at the stadium, the boys approached me and told me that it's nothing against me, that I shouldn't take it in that way, but they wanted to talk to Benjamín to let him know that they want him to return," said Campos, who remains as bullpen coach.
"They asked for an opportunity to show that they can make a difference and that they can make positive results to obtain victories, they wanted Benjamin to return, Mr. Héctor (Ley, executive president) said that they should talk to him and if I accepted, go ahead."
The Tomateros indeed went ahead and split their first six games after Gil's reprieve.
NARANJEROS WIN, PULL GAME AHEAD OF MOCHIS
With just over three weeks remaining in the Mexican Pacific League's regular season schedule, there has not been a lot of separation between teams twelve games into the second-half standings. Los Mochis was in the driver's seat a week ago but first-half champion Hermosillo was never far behind and the two teams found themselves in a tie for first on Saturday before the Naranjeros pulled into a one-game lead by virtue of their 12-5 win at home over Monterrey while the Caneros dropped a 5-1 decision to visiting Jalisco Sunday.
The Orangemen had to overcome an early 3-0 deficit after Ricardo Serrano socked a three-run homer off starter Jose Samayoa in the top of the first, but knotted the game up at 3-3 in the bottom of the frame, thanks in part to a two-run roundtripper by Luis Alfonso Cruz off Sultanes opener Frank Duncan.
The two teams went back and for the the next few innings and the score was 5-5 in the bottom of the fifth when Cruz singled in Jasson Atondo and Scott Schebler scored on a fielding error by Monterrey second baseman Alberto Carreon to make it a 7-5 game. A five-run outburst in the eighth put the game away for Hermosillo as Ramon Mendoza stroked an RBI double and Cesar Salazar, Roberto Ramos (who'd homered earlier) and Atondo chipped in with run-scoring singles to end the scoring as 11,395 spectators watched at Estadio Sonora.
Hermosillo now leads the LMP second half with a 9-3 record, just ahead of 8-4 Los Mochis. The Caneros fell at home to Jalisco Sunday, 5-1, as Julian Ornelas scored on a sacrifice fly in the top of the third to give the Charros a 1-0 lead that they'd build to 5-0 until Brayan Mendoza plated the Caneros' lone run of the night on a Justin Dean single. Ornelas went 3-for-4 with two runs and two RBIs, adding a two-run homer off reliever Daniel Duarte in the top of the seventh.
Jalisco starter Brennan Bernardino and four relievers scattered 10 hits and four walks as Los Mochis went 2-for-14 with runners in scoring position and stranded 15 on base. Nick Struck did not pitch badly for the Caneros, allowing one earned run on three hits in four innings, but his offense just couldn't put together enough support.
Just off the Mex Pac pace are Mexicali and Obregon, who are tied for third with identical 7-5 records. The Aguilas lost a tough 6-5 game in Navojoa Sunday after trailing 6-0 heading into the seventh. Reynaldo Rodriguez (a former twins farmhand) just missed hitting for the cycle, delivering a double, triple and two-run homer for Mexicali. Likewise, Obregon fell a game back by losing on the road in Guasave, 4-2, Sunday. The Yaquis could only gather seven hits, two by Victor Mendoza, as Nico Tellache won his fifth for the Algodoneros.
Tellache is one of five pitchers tied for second in wins in the LMP, one behind the six of Hermosillo's Wilmer Rios. Rios has won five games in a row with one no-decision since November 4, lowering his ERA from 7.84 to 2.24 in his last eight starts. Los Mochis' Luis Miranda, who'd given up one earned run in his first seven starts, allowed four against Jalisco last Friday and saw his ERA jump from 0.20 to 0.92 but that still leads the Mex Pac. Juan Pablo Oramas of Hermosillo is second at 1.28 while Mazatlan's Casey Harman's 1.83 ranks third. Two strikeouts separate the three league leaders as the 50 K's of Matt Pobereyko (Guasave) and Manny Barreda (Culiacan) lead the 48 by Luis Payan (Navojoa). Mazatlan's Elkin Alcala has recorded three saves since the start of December to bring his season total to 15, three more than the 12 each of Josh Leuke (Jalisco) and Brandon Koch (Guasave).
Monterrey's Roberto Valenzuela saw his batting average drop from .380 to .363 over his last six games but he still enjoys a comfortable lead over Justin Dean (.339) and Yosmany Tomas (.330), both of Los Mochis. Mexicali's Anthony Giansanti belted a homer against Mazatlan last Tuesday to pull into a lead with Jesse Castillo of Guasave at 10 apiece. Obregon's Sebastian Valle is third with eight dingers. The Caneros' Tomas now leads in RBIs with 37, ahead of Obregon teammates Victor Mendoza (36) and Yadir Drake (35). A nice race in stolen bases (so to speak) has developed between Randy Romero of Mazatlan and Hermosillo's Jose Cardona, who have 18 and 17 swipes, respectively. Justin Dean (Los Mochis) and Jared Oliva (Monterrey) are tied with 14 each.
LIM: YUCATAN SOUTH CHAMP; MONCLOVA, PUEBLA IN FINALS
In restructuring the Mexican Winter League for a second season after its revival last winter, the Mexican League created a somewhat-unwieldy circuit with ten teams representing 14 LMB clubs (including four combined squads) spread out over three divisions: Monclova, Monterrey and Union Laguna in the North; Mexico City/Oaxaca, Veracruz/Leon and Puebla in the Central; and Durango, Yucatan, Tabasco/Guadalajara and Tijuana/Aguascalientes in the South.
The format made for uneven scheduling and at least one team sitting out every day during the regular season between October 12 and November 28. Teams in the LIM North and Central played 24 games each while LIM South clubs, all playing in Yucatan towns, took the field 28 times. It was determined at one time that the South Division playoff winner would serve as a stand-alone champion among their larger group of teams while North and Central playoff winners would meet in the Serie del Principe for the nominal LIM championship, which was won by Monclova last winter.
Yucatan earned the LIM South title by defeating the combined Tijuana/Aguascalientes club in three playoff games, including last Thursday's 7-6 win in Uman. Leones starter Cesar Cervantes pitched seven innings to earn the win while closer Anhuar Garcia got the save. Garcia was the LIM's leader in salvados during the regular season. Toros prospect Porfirio Guerrero was tagged with the loss.
"I'm very happy and very proud of the boys,” said Leones sports manager Santos Hernandez. “We're sure that they will continue to show great capacity for this sport and I'm very grateful to all those fans who have been supporting these future stars from day one."
Meanwhile, Monclova and Puebla have already begun their Serie del Principe rematch from last season, which was won by the Acereros in dramatic fashion on Shawon Dunston, Junior's walkoff homer in the bottom of the tenth in the fifth and deciding game. Monclova is managed by Matias Carrillo while Hector Hurtado, who spent 22 seasons as a catcher in the Mexican League, is dugout boss for the Pericos, who he led to an LIM-best 16-7-1 record during the regular season.
The first two games took place in Estadio Monclova, where Puebla won Saturday's opener in a 2-1 pitcher's duel. Pericos starter Hector Sepulveda contributed five shutout inning to earn the win while Parakeets reliever Jose Hernandez sparkled by striking out all five Acereros batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings. Puebla took a 1-0 lead in the top of the second on Herman Alvarado's RBI single and the visitors added a run in the eighth on a run-scoring one-bagger by Giancarlo Servin. With runners at the corners and nobody out in the bottom of the ninth, the Acereros pulled off a double steal that brought Evan Carrillo home from third to break the shutout bid and narrow Puebla's lead to one. That was as good as it would get as Caleb Perez ultimately grounded to Luis Medina at third for the final out.
MEXICAN WINTER LEAGUE Final 2022 Standings
North: Monclova 14-8-2, Monterrey 10-12-2, Union Laguna 9-13-2.
Central: Puebla 16-7-1, Mexico City/Oaxaca 14-10-0, Veracruz/Leon 5-18-1.
South: Yucatan 14-10-2, Tijuana/Aguascalientes 15-11-1, Tabasco/Guadalajara 12-12-2, Durango 9-17-1.
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